I recently enjoyed reading The Forest of Enchantments by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. The book not only tells the Ramayana from Sita’s perspective, it also brings into the light certain neglected characters from the epic. The woman characters are well fleshed out and we can connect to the emotions and motivations of Kaushalya, Mandodari and Urmila who existed only as footnotes in the story of the Great Hero.
As someone who works in the domain of leadership and is trying to enable women to become successful leaders in their work and life, I realised that the women of the epic portray unique characteristics seen in different female leaders. There is little difference in the effectiveness of great leaders whether female or male but women do possess different energies, mindsets and motivations as compared to men. Jung explored the different male and female archetypes in his work on psychoanalysis. Most of the examples we have of these archetypes come from Western myths and philosophies.
I realised that the women of the epic portray unique characteristics seen in different female leaders. There is little difference in the effectiveness of great leaders whether female or male but women do possess different energies, mindsets and motivations as compared to men.
Our literature and mythology also offers us such varied richness. As I explored the female archetypes of the Ramayana, I saw them not through the strict lens of psychoanalysis but more as a curious traveller drawing connections and lessons from what I have seen and read.
So here are the four female archetypes from one of the greatest stories ever told in India, an epic which exerts its influence and directs our actions even today.
Maa- The Mother
Kaushalya’ s main identity was as Ram’s mother. She was a queen and a wife but motherhood was her goal and destiny. Her love for her son extended to his wife and the larger family. At her best, she was a simple, sweet woman who expressed her affection through cooking and caring. She was often taken for granted and relinquished her power and position to the more demanding second queen.
The Mother Leader is a nurturer, a caregiver who nourishes those around her with her maternal love. She will sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of her ‘children’ and her identity is defined by those under her care. She is loving, generous and usually says ‘my guys’ ‘my family’, ‘my kids’ while referring to her team. She brings goodies for her team after travel and often invites them for a home-cooked meal. Team development and growth is important for her and she can be a great coach and mentor.
The Mother Leader is a nurturer, a caregiver who nourishes those around her with her maternal love. She will sacrifice her own happiness for the sake of her ‘children’ and her identity is defined by those under her care.
The dark side of the mother leader is that of a possessive, suffocating woman blinded by her need for belonging. This dark side shows up as insecurity when team members want to spread their wings or a tendency to micromanage like a helicopter Mom. She makes statements such as “I know what is good for you,” “I am doing this for your sake.” She will make irrational demands and decisions which stem from a misplaced sense of responsibility.
Rani- The Queen
Kaikeyi, though the second wife of King Dasharath, was more of a Queen than Kaushalya. At her best, she was courageous, skilled and quite capable of holding her own in battle. She liked power and demanded respect. She expected special treatment because she believed she deserved it. Kaikeyi was the only queen with a kop-bhavan, the anger chamber. She displayed her emotions openly and could be cuttingly straightforward.
The Queen Leader is the Queen Bee. She has risen to the top because of her competence and her confidence. She will get the job done and is valued for her execution skills and frank opinions. The Queen is ambitious and does not believe in the glass ceiling. She knows she is better than most men!
The Queen is ambitious and does not believe in the glass ceiling. She knows she is better than most men!
The shadow side of the Queen is a tyrant, a cruel dictator who is selfish and puts her needs over others, even her loved ones. Kaikeyi did not even bother to consult Bharat, her beloved son about his desire to be king. The Queens are carried away by powerful emotions; the fear of losing power drives them to be destructive and domineering. The Queens live dangerously, always on the warrior mode, the fire energy burning strongly in them.
Kanya- The Maiden
Sita, at the beginning of the epic is the quintessential maiden. She is pure, innocent and full of romantic longing. The Maiden is charming, optimistic and believes that she can make the world a better place. Sita’s core emotion is love which ranges from the all-consuming passion for her husband to her affection for plants and animals. She is creative and capable but also modest. She is strong but rarely uses that strength to dominate others.
The Maiden as a leader is popular and well regarded. As a new leader, she tries to perform and please. She wants acceptance and love from all. She is usually diplomatic and careful to avoid hurting others. But she is also worried that she will never be good enough. A vein of anxiety throbs dully beneath her cheerful exterior but she keeps her doubts to herself.
The Maiden as a leader is popular and well regarded. As a new leader, she tries to perform and please. She wants acceptance and love from all.
The dark side of the maiden is the naïve fool. She can sometimes be unduly optimistic and immature. Sometimes, she becomes the flirt, the coquette who tries to seduce the object of her affections in pursuit of love. Thwarted love brings out the worst in her and she turns into a vengeful, spiteful fury.
The Maiden like Sita, Urmila and Ahalya needs to go through her trial by fire before she emerges as the woman she is meant to be. If she is able to endure those painful tragedies and overcome challenges, she can become a true leader, respected and loved by all. Until then, she will be seen as only a girl, not fully formed and realised.
The Maiden like Sita, Urmila and Ahalya needs to go through her trial by fire before she emerges as the woman she is meant to be.
Rishika- The Wise woman
Mandodari, the wife of Ravan is known for her wisdom and counsel. Even her fearsome and brutal husband depends upon her sage advice. She is usually calm and composed, exuding a serene energy, a deep gravitas. She stands for the voice of sanity in turbulent times. She sees beyond the present into the future and remains clear-eyed in the face of uncertainty.
The Rishika as a leader is an experienced well-respected woman who had earned her place through her knowledge and expertise. She is the last word on her subject. She is the go-to person for all issues in her domain. The wise woman leader is a reliable problem solver and innovator. At her best, she is a guide and the moral compass, the person who keeps a cool head in troubled times.
The Rishika as a leader is an experienced well-respected woman who had earned her place through her knowledge and expertise. She is the last word on her subject.
The Rishika’s shadow side is the distant ascetic or the cruel witch. The wise woman can sometimes seem removed from day-to-day issues, locked up in an ivory tower, looking down upon mere mortals. She is unable to form genuine human connections and can be cold and disconnected. Sometimes, she shows up as the witch who can misuse her knowledge to curse or misguide others. Manthara was a wise loyal servant but she also became twisted and manipulative with fear and insecurity.
There is nothing good or bad about archetypes. They are just patterns and energies. We display both the bright and the shadow side of ourselves. Most of us are in transition. I see myself moving from the Kanya to the Rishika and sometimes I do display certain aspects of other archetypes. Most of us have a predominant archetype and a secondary one. Leadership is not about fixing anything but enhancing our self-awareness and bringing balance to the many aspects of ourselves.
Nirupama Subramanian is an author, leadership development facilitator, certified coach and co-founder of GLOW-Growing Leadership of Women. The views expressed are the author’s own.